The analog photography community is a growing one. Even a glance through social media reveals that there's no shortage of folks taking pictures in urban and outdoor environments, one at a time. Many of them are underground artists, their work often overlooked, while others have managed to wind and develop their way into the limelight. Like Joe Greer. If you haven’t heard of him, chances are you've double-tapped his work.
Greer, who is widely praised throughout the film community for his dreamy landscapes, portraits, and street scenes, has set himself apart from others as a self-taught artist with a broad scope and individual style. With over 635k followers on Instagram and a client roster that includes companies like Apple, VSCO, Cadillac, and Mont Blanc, to name a few, Greer continues to push the envelope and define his voice.
But Greer's CV is just surface level. Strip away the numbers, the partnerships, and the blue checkmark and you're still left with the question: Who is Joe Greer? How does he think; how does he operate? Who is the man behind the camera, really?
In his new book, The Lay of the Land, published by HarperCollins, Greer attempts to answer that question for both himself and his fans over 100-plus pages of text and photos. The work is a visual memoir (though Greer is still cresting his mid-thirties) that unpacks the deeper connections between oneself and the natural world.
Recently, I had a chance to speak with Greer about The Lay of the Land. During the conversation, he opened up about his journey as an artist, reflecting on his life and the happenstance moments that ultimately led him to photography.
You've lived in really distinct parts of the US. What has it been like to experience those places and move around that much?
I was born in Michigan and raised in Florida, but I’ve lived in Virginia, Washington, Colorado, Oregon, New York, and now Tennessee, where I’ll probably stay for the long haul. I am the man I am today because of all the experiences I’ve had over the years, from my upbringing to the lessons learned in these different places. I was very sheltered as a kid, but God gifted me with this insatiable curiosity for the world. I yearned for more, to see what else was waiting for me outside of my small town in Florida. I got that first taste of freedom when I lived in Virginia, then in Washington. Each location ignited a fire inside me to want to see more. That fire is still in me now, to want to learn, to grow, to stay curious, and I hope it never fades.
"I believe God has called me to take pictures."
You're known as an analog guy. How did you get into film photography?
I started with my iPhone 4 back in 2011. I was living in Spokane, Washington studying biblical studies in college. Instagram had just come out, but It was only available on iOS, so I sold my Samsung, purchased an iPhone, and downloaded the app. What started as a hobby, taking photos of landscapes and the random moments of life, would soon become more than just a hobby. I started gaining followers on Instagram, and it happened rather quickly. One thing led to another, and I was able to land a job at VSCO out of college as an online curator. I moved to Colorado and bought my first digital camera, the Canon 5D Mark II, and a 50mm lens.
Film photography would follow after, and you can thank my wife Maddie for that. She gifted me my first film camera, the Canon AE1, on our wedding day after an offhand comment I made about how I wanted to get into film when we were engaged. Ultimately, she is to blame for me getting into analog photography. It’s crazy, but who knows how the last seven years would have turned out if she hadn’t. Shooting film was a steep learning curve for me. I almost gave up.
"Shooting film was a steep learning curve for me. I almost gave up."
Where did you learn the skills to become a professional photographer?
It was very gradual. I was working a full-time job at VSCO when, in 2015, I was offered a position as a creative director for a church in Oregon. I was excited [that] this fused my two passions: God and photography. I jumped on the offer and moved out. During those two years, I would get random photo gigs on the side. Thankfully my boss at the church allowed me to take them. I would shoot tourism, automotive, and clothing campaigns, anything I could get. I was just ecstatic to be getting paid for my work.
Then, in 2016, a few weeks before Christmas, I was unexpectedly let go from my position as creative director. This sudden loss forced me to go full-time into photography. It was always a dream to go freelance, but this forced my hand to step into that, and it was a tough transition. I had no work for six months. I questioned everything, and I wasn’t sure what to do. Maddie and I ended up moving to New York, and that’s where things truly started to grow for me.
What are some techniques that you used to find your style?
I have been photographing, curating, and editing for 11 years now, and I think it’s ingrained in my mind. I don’t think about it anymore. I was aware of this when I started, but now I know how certain film stocks work under different settings, and I’ve found my rhythm. I shoot photographs purely based on color, while the moments unfolding in a scene draw me in compositionally.
How did The Lay of the Land come about?
It was the summer of 2020, a few months into COVID. I left New York to live with my in-laws in Nashville, Tennessee. I had just dropped my first photo book, nyc, i Iove you…, when HarperCollins approached me to write this book. It was the last thing on my radar—I was in the hype of my photo book, and it was something I wasn’t even remotely considering at all. I am not a writer; that’s why I take photos for a living, so I don’t have to write.
But after bouncing off ideas, and with the encouragement from HarperCollins, the concept of the book was beginning to reveal itself. It took a long process, with months and months and months of essays and revisions. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, but it allowed me to dive deeper into myself. I got to see some of the parallels between my earlier work and earlier life experiences. Looking back, I think it was the perfect time to dive into these stories, but I hope to never write a book again in my life. I want to go back to making photo books.
In the book, you mention your connection to your mother's love of adventure. How much of that plays a role in the way you perceive the world through a lens?
Losing my mom at a young age, I still don’t quite understand psychologically what that did to my development as a child. It’s been 30 years since the accident, and I think there are a lot of things that I deal with now that I haven't fully dealt with. I often think, is this stemming from my adolescent years, high school, around the time my mom got into an accident or her passing?
I think about her from time to time, and I always think about what it would have been like if it never happened. At the end of the day, I wish she could have met my wife Maddie and seen me make it for myself, I know she would have been proud. She had this energy about her, she carried this lust for life and adventure, and I strive to do the same. It's a part of me and my work, a little piece of her, wherever I go.
You’ve dealt with a lot of hardships throughout your life. Looking back, how have those trials shaped your work?
What I think is so beautiful about being a photographer, and it took me a long time to realize this, is I get to pull from my life experiences when I’m behind that camera. As artists, there's this well. A resource made up of our life. That well is deep, and we have access to pull from that well whenever we want. We are the only ones that can access that well, and I highly encourage photographers to tap into it, to pull from the resources, and lean into those emotions when you’re behind the camera. Learning to do this has allowed me to be more fluid and in-tune as a photographer, allowing me to create honest work.
You talk about “changing lanes photographically” to avoid burnout. What are some techniques you use when you feel burnout creeping in?
I strive to mix things up as much as possible. It helps keep that curiosity growing. Whether that's changing the format, film stock, or subjects, being able to change lanes into multiple different avenues of photography has kept me from burnout. I’m constantly adding things, even outlets outside of photography, which keeps my mind balanced.
Running has been something very special to my creative process these last two years. Running was my first love, but taking a decade break in my early twenties to focus on photography and now rediscovering it in my thirties has been a beautiful revelation that has helped me avoid burnout. I can hit the trails and think about photography or not think about photography. I can think about my marriage, life, goals, etc. Running allows me to breathe and let loose.
"Instagram is a falsified image that engagement is everything, that likes and followers are everything."
How do Instagram and social media influence the way that you shoot?
I’ve taken Instagram less seriously over the years, trying to unlearn the unhealthy practices it taught me in the early days. Instagram is a falsified image that engagement is everything, that likes and followers are everything. I wouldn’t be here without it, but it crippled me for so many years. I would believe my worth and value were associated with the number next to my name or the number of likes a photo received. That mindset started to dictate how I shot, what I shared, and what I went out to shoot because I knew the type of reaction I would get. Spending the last four or five years to unlearn these impressions that Instagram has taught me has now led me to a beautiful phase in my life.
You reference your relationship with God and how your faith has been a prevalent foundation in your life growing up. Do you still hope to one day become a pastor?
I believe God can call me in any direction that He so chooses, and my heart is open to that. However, I am very confident in where He has led me. There was an intense moment going into my senior year of college where I had these very honest conversations with God about my future. I was torn between pursuing a career in photography or continuing my studies in hopes of becoming a pastor. But I had an immense amount of peace. I was taking these preaching classes, studying Greek, everything I thought and hoped was my future as a pastor. Yet, He was leading me to take photographs. Now, photography has become my pulpit. Photography has become a way that I communicate. It sounds so silly, but I believe God has called me to take pictures. I don’t see myself getting into pastor ministry, but I love God, and I’m trying my best to follow his direction. I want to allow myself, and my work, to be a vessel for Him.
Last question: Where do you get your film scanned and processed?
I ship my film to a lab in New York City called Picturehouse, it’s a small independent darkroom. When I was living there in the city, that’s where I would send my rolls. They do some of the best work in terms of film scans, and I have been using them ever since.